How much does music add to Les Misérables?

A continuing theme in Church documents on music is that the liturgy is vastly improved — made more noble, more penetrating, more glorious and affecting — when it is sung. The goal is not just to sing the major parts of the Mass but the entire Mass, propers and readings and dialogues. The congregation, the schola, and the celebrant all have a role.

Liturgy in this way has been likened to a musical drama. The new film Les Misérables, then, has some liturgical relevance. The reviews have been fantastic, and I’m in complete agreement. There were moments in this filmed that moved me like nothing I’ve seen before.

What the commentators have missed, however, is how music itself ads enormous power to the film. Unlike most musicals, that have occasional numbers, most of this film was actually sung. In this way, it is more like opera than an old-fashioned movie musical.

Now, just imagine the same actors and scenes without the music — a spoken Les Misérables, as it were. It would be the same story. It could be great and powerful. The narrative would carry the story. All of that is true. But once you see the musical version, it is rather obvious that the power of the film would just not be the same without it. The music is what lifts the film from great to epically astonishing.

It also sets a new high standard of integration of music and action. The score is unusually text driven, just like liturgy. The singers in the film were chosen not for their singing ability but for their acting — which makes the singing more authentic in some way. Their voices were not ruined by too much training and affectation. They seemed authentic because of this — again, a point that is replicated in a liturgical context.

I highly recommend that every priest and singer needs to see the film to understand the drama that is possible in the musical context. The application to liturgical worship makes the point that we are denying ourselves deeper spiritual experiences by settling for spoken Masses over sung ones.